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Flint task force slams EM law, all levels of government in final report

March 29, 2016

Article courtesy of MIRS News Service

The task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the Flint water crisis spared none of the governmental actors — federal, state or local — from some responsibility for the crisis in a biting final report issued Wednesday.

The state’s emergency manager law was identified as setting the framework for a series of “questionable decisions and failures” related to the management of Flint’s water supply.

“Emergency managers, not locally elected officials, made the decision to switch to the Flint River as Flint’s primary water supply source,” the report by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force declared. The report stated the role of the emergency managers in Flint “places accountability” with the state.

Further, the task force suggested the emergency manager law itself, which was struck down by voters in a referendum in 2012, but quickly replaced by Snyder and Republican lawmakers, needs to be made less authoritative, although that word wasn’t used.

For one, the task force noted emergency managers “often do not have” the expertise to manage the non-financial aspects of municipal government. The Governor said Wednesday he’d be open to reviewing the emergency manager law.

“I think the law has value,” Snyder said. “Overall, can it be improved? I’m always open to that discussion and I appreciate the recommendations, and I look forward to talking to the Legislature about it at some point in the future.”

The task force reiterated its prior stance that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) “bears the primary responsibility” for the water contamination in Flint.

But the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the Governor’s office, Flint’s emergency managers, the city of Flint, the Genesee County Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were all taken to task in one form or another.

For the DHHS, its “lack of timely analysis and understanding of its own data on childhood blood lead levels,” as well as its reluctance to share data with Dr. Mona HANNA-ATTISHA and Marc EDWARDS, “prolonged the Flint water crisis.”

For the Governor’s office, while the task force did not refute what Snyder has long said about what he knew and when, they still went after his team for relying on incorrect information from his departments “despite mounting evidence from outside experts and months of citizens’ complaints.”

Chris KOLB, president of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and co-chair of the task force, said the Governor’s office was playing a game of Whack-A-Mole when it came to the Flint water issues.

“Every time an issue came up, they asked about it, they were told it’s being taken care of . . . and another issue would come up. At some point though, you have to say, wait a second, my gut’s telling me there’s something wrong,” Kolb said.

The task force also referenced emails traded by members of Snyder’s staff in October 2014 suggesting the state consider switching Flint back to Detroit water.

That didn’t happen until a year later. That discussion, the report said, “should have resulted, at a minimum, in a full and comprehensive review of the water situation in Flint. It was disregarded, however, because of cost considerations and repeated assurances that the water was safe.”

And the task force dug into the EPA’s slowness to act, saying the agency “failed to properly exercise its authority” prior to January 2016, adding that the EPA’s conduct “casts doubt on its willingness to aggressively pursue enforcement.”

The task force’s documentation also stated that former Flint Emergency Manager Ed KURTZ signed the contract to put the city’s water treatment plant into operation with the goal of using the Flint River as the water supply.

And in a point heavily emphasized by task force members during the press conference Wednesday, the report says the Flint water crisis is a “clear case of environmental injustice.” The Governor was urged to issue an executive order to mandate guidance and training on environmental justice across all state agencies.

In all, the task force made 36 findings and 44 recommendations. It was led by two co-chairs — former Senate Majority Leader Ken SIKKEMA and Kolb.

Snyder’s office said Wednesday many of the report’s recommendations are already being implemented.

Kolb called the task force’s work a “really sobering experience” and said it was “disheartening” to learn about the problems plaguing the DEQ, which the task force insisted needs a “proactive, comprehensive cultural change.”

“I’ve been asked several times, sort of, what caused this,” Kolb said. “I think I’ve personally said that it was a mixture of ignorance, incompetence and arrogance by many decision-makers.”

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